From Clemson to LSU, he’s still Mike the Tiger

In the last game of new LSU linebacker Mike Jones Jr.'s previous college career at Clemson, he intercepted an Ohio State pass in the end zone in last season's College Football Playoff semifinals vs. Ohio State.

New LSU inside linebacker Mike Jones Jr. could have taken the safe career path.

He had invested three years at Clemson, a football program that has made six consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoffs with two national championships (2017, 2019) in four championship game appearances.

As an outside linebacker who was a third-year sophomore last season, he had played 555 career snaps in 29 games with 47 tackles (8 for loss) and two interceptions. He had seven starts last year and positioned himself to be a full-time starter this season.

But with a bachelor’s degree in hand and three seasons of playing eligibility remaining thanks to the NCAA adding back a year because of COVID-19, Jones decided to turn his world inside out.

He wanted to make himself a complete linebacker in the eyes of NFL scouts, so he wanted to transfer to a program where he could learn the intricacies of playing inside linebacker.

“I feel like last year I put plenty of film on tape of me being able to play outside the box,” Jones said. “I left Clemson to try and find a new role in a system. I wanted to play more in the box.”

He made his decision to transfer back in the winter when Clemson inside linebacker and graduate student James Skalski decided to return for a sixth season, taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 related extra season of eligibility.

There wasn’t a spot for Jones at inside linebacker. So, understanding he would graduate in May, he looked for a new locale with the blessing of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.

“My thing has always been about graduation,” Swinney told the Greenville (S.C.) News in early March. “When a young man graduates, to me, that’s what it’s all about. And if he’s ready for a different experience, then we wish him well.

“Mike is an awesome kid. It was all good. I hate to see him go, but he did everything we asked of him. I’m proud of him and I know he’ll do great.”

Skalski told the Greenville News he was surprised Jones was transferring but was supportive of his move.

“He’s got his goals. . .and he had to make a decision that was best for himself,” Skalski said. “He’ll do great at LSU. I have nothing but respect for Mike Jones. He’s a great, great player. I’m excited to see what he does.” 

When Jones began looking for his next college destination, he probably didn’t imagine it would be with LSU, which won the 2019 national championship by pounding Clemson, 42-25, in the CFB title game in the then-Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

But once he put his name in the transfer portal, he didn’t long for LSU to call. The Tigers were looking for immediate, experienced linebacking help and Jones was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 6 best overall transfer.

According to Tigers’ head coach Ed Orgeron, defenses need as much linebacking depth as possible when facing today’s uptempo, no-huddle, spread offenses.

““Offenses are ‘basketball on grass’, they’re going 80-90 plays,” Orgeron said. “If we can rotate our linebackers, two at each spot, then we’ll be better off. Then against some situational stuff, on third down, we may put in some different guys than we have on first and second down depending on the type of offense we’re playing.”

It took just a few Zoom calls between Jones and new Tigers’ defensive coordinator Daronte Jones as well as new linebackers Blake Baker to convince Jones if “you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

“There may not be the best relationship between Clemson folk and LSU folk,” Jones said. ”But this was a decision to really challenge myself and put myself in a better position for years to come.”

Jones’ challenge is two-fold. It’s learning a new position in what he regards as the best conference in college football.

“One of my big reasons coming here was to really challenge myself, being in the SEC West and the SEC in general, you can’t take anything for granted,” said Jones, who is listed as 6-2, 235 pounds compared to 6-feet, 225 last season for Clemson.

Jones understands in some ways he is essentially starting his college career over from ground zero in shifting from outside to inside linebacker. To the naked eye, moving several yards to a different position doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s like landing on a new planet.

“Outside, you’re in a lot more space,” Jones said. “There’s a lot more time, things take time to develop because you’re farther away from the ball.

“When you’re inside, it’s a different game, everything is happening right there. It’s more physical, things happen faster. You are in a limited space and it’s a different space from what I’m used to on the field.”

Orgeron understands it’s going to take time for Jones to adapt.

“Diagnosing and the physicality, he has no problem with that,” Orgeron said of Jones. “He knows, if you played nickel out there or played in the slot, and all of a sudden you’re taking on Anthony Bradford who weighs 355 pounds. . .it’s a different world. He’s done a great job and he’s got a great attitude.”

Jones is feeling his way through his new position daily. He’s grateful he’s surrounded by LSU veteran starting inside linebackers such as seniors Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville to show him the way.

“There’s a lot of competition in that linebacker room, I try not to get left behind,” Jones said. “I have great teammates and coaches and they are helping me develop as fast as I can in the situation.”

Clark appreciates Jones’ willingness to adapt.

“Mike is a guy who can do whatever,” Clark said. “Whatever you ask him to do, he’ll do it.” 

Jones also understands when transferring into a new program that already has veteran leaders, it’s best to let actions speak rather than words.

“My goal wasn’t to come in here and be the rah-rah guy that everybody followed,” Jones said. “If that’s who I needed to be, I’d be it. But we’ve got great leaders here already.

“I don’t see how anybody is going to come in here and tell those guys what to do. They’ve earned it, they’ve been here and put in the time.”

Also, Jones’ last transition might be solving his identity crisis of switching from being a Clemson Tiger to a LSU Tiger.

Like when watching films during linebackers’ meetings and LSU/Clemson game video flashes on the screen.

“I’m watching my old team play and I’m still happy in that moment,” Jones said. “I’m glad you guys won it. . .well, not glad, because I lost.

“But being here now, I’m glad we won. It has been interesting to see the other side.”

Just wait until the season starts.

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